When a chef gets to know a restaurant’s regular patrons, there is some leeway to cook them special, off-the-menu dishes made with seasonal ingredients or ones that have just been delivered, or to cater to their hankering for a favourite dish.
Sometimes, the dish – no matter if it’s a time-consuming one appreciated by connoisseurs or an elevated fast-food burger – becomes popular via word of mouth and photos posted on social media.
For chef Paolo Monti, that dish was a traditional pasta made with high-quality ingredients. As the executive chef of Italian fine-dining establishment Gaia Ristorante in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island, Monti often has guests who ask him to make them something on the spur of the moment.
“A lot of customers come and want to see me. They want to hear what is in my fridge because I get things different coming in,” Monti explains. “A lot of people have menus done in that moment: ‘there’s four of us, we want three courses, we have this much time, you do it’.”
Italian actor Alberto Sordi in a scene from An American in Rome. Paolo Monti at Gaia Ristorante chef inspired to cook pasta Amatriciana for a regular guest because his face reminded hthe cheft of a scene in the film where Sordi’s character eats spaghetti.
Gaia Ristorante recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – impressive in fast-paced Hong Kong and even more remarkable because it has been in the hands of the same chef and manager, Pino Piano, for two decades.
One day in late February, a friend and regular customer visited Gaia, asking for some pasta. “When I saw his face, he reminded me so much of Alberto Sordi in the movie An American in Rome where he eats spaghetti. So I said, ‘You look like the Amatricianist’, it sounds like the name of a movie,” Monti recalls.
Pasta Amatriciana cooked by Paolo Monti. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
He took a picture of his friend with a napkin tucked into his shirt as he dug into the pasta and classic Amatriciana sauce. The dish is made with pork cheek, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and is made in an iron skillet. The sauce is named after the town Amatrice in Italy, where there was a tragic earthquake in 2016.
Monti posted the photo on Instagram with the hashtag #theamatricianist. Soon, his regular customers were asking if they could order the dish too.
“One customer who travels a lot and has actually been to Amatrice said what I made for him was better than what he ate in Amatrice,” says Monti proudly.
Monti’s pasta Amatriciana is made with pork cheek, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and served in an iron skillet. Photo: SCMP/Xiaomei Chen
Since February, the Roman chef has made about 30 servings of the off-menu dish, including for customers who have eaten it three or four times.
“I ask my customers to come dressed up as the Amatricianist, dress well and have respect for this simple dish,” says Monti. “When I cooked this dish in Rome, the bankers would tie their napkins around their necks before eating it.”
Monti learned how to make the dish in 1996 at a decades-old trattoria in Rome; the owners were from Amatrice. “The family was very traditional and their stove had a centralised burner, so it was so hot working in the kitchen,” recalls Monti.
I like to eat abalone sauce with rice to soak up the flavour, but I thought about the Western soups I like to eat with puff pastry on top and thought, instead of noodles and rice why not use puff pastry?
He prefers making the dish with linguine or with bucati or paccheri, thick tube pasta that can soak up the sauce. The pork cheek, called guanciale, is sliced into thin strips and fried until crispy, then flavoured with a splash of white wine.
Piennolo tomatoes are added for their sweet acidity and taste, as well as a clove of unskinned garlic, a bay leaf and a bit of chilli for a subtle kick. After cooking for a few minutes, the sauce is finished with olive oil and aged pecorino cheese. Monti stresses the key is cooking the sauce in an iron skillet because the iron changes the acidity of the tomatoes.
Over at One Harbour Road in the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong hotel in Wan Chai, Chinese executive chef Chan Hon-cheong fields many requests for off-menu items, though a number of the dishes need to be ordered in advance because of the preparation required. There are also requests he cannot entertain.
One Harbour Road at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. Photo: Grand Hyatt Hong Kong
Chan Hon-cheong with a dish of braised Australian sea cucumber, pomelo peel and abalone sauce in puff pastry. Photo: SCMP/Edmond So
“I’ve had guests who ask if I can make shark’s fin soup for them, and I apologise and tell them it is our hotel policy not to serve it,” he says. “And then they ask, ‘What if we bring dried shark’s fin, can you make that?’ And I politely tell them it is our hotel policy not to make these kinds of dishes at all.”
He has had requests for snake soup, which the restaurant hasn’t served in almost two decades; a deep-fried dish featuring a small bird called a yellow-breasted bunting which has edible bones; and for a dish of baked scrambled eggs made with a species of ragworm used in Chinese traditional medicine called Tylorrhynchus heterochaetus.
Both the bird and the worm are considered delicacies in China, but they are classified as wild animals in Hong Kong and not available for consumption.
Chan cooks his off-menu dish for guests at One Harbour Road two to three times a month. Photo: SCMP
Chan does have an off-menu item he makes: his signature braised pomelo, which is combined with Australian sea cucumber and covered in puff pastry. The dried sea cucumber is soaked and braised in fish stock. The pomelo skin is soaked in water and wrung out for a few days, then fried in pork lard to loosen the fibres and added to the fish stock. A rich savoury abalone sauce is added, the dish is covered with the pastry and baked for 15-18 minutes.
“I like to eat abalone sauce with rice to soak up the flavour, but I thought about the Western soups I like to eat with puff pastry on top and thought, instead of noodles and rice why not use puff pastry?” he says. “The texture of the sea cucumber is soft, same with the pomelo, so the pastry gives it a bit of crunchiness.”
When Chan first made the dish, customers posted about it on Facebook. Requests for it soon spread, and the Macau-born chef now cooks it for guests dining in private rooms two to three times a month.
Cary Docherty’ s fish burger is now on the menu at Lobster Bar and Grill. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Cary Docherty, executive sous chef at the Island Shangri-La in Admiralty, is amused that his elevated off-menu take on a fast-food fish burger has, since February, become so popular that it is now on the Saturday set lunch menu at the hotel’s Lobster Bar and Grill.
“I was on the way to work and looking through Instagram and saw one of our guests, who was coming in that day, did not have the best experience with a fish burger from another popular restaurant,” Docherty recalls.
So he made her a panko-crusted sole fillet with Cheddar cheese and tartare sauce in a fluffy potato bun, accompanied by minted mushy peas, French fries and a side salad.
I don’t do a lot of experimenting or trials. I think you generally know it’s going to work in your head.
“Just for fun, as a potential one-off thing to give a guest an uplifting experience after a negative one, and lo and behold she loved it, posted it on Instagram and literally that was it. Loads of people started messaging me, ‘Can I have the fish burger? Is it on the menu? Can I have that?” Docherty says.
“Is it the most creative dish? Absolutely not. But we try to make it the best, whether it’s tarte Tatin or beef Wellington,” says Docherty. “I had no idea it could be this popular. The beautiful thing about it is it touches on nostalgia.”
He already has a new “it burger”, the sweetbread burger.
Docherty made the fish burger with a particular customer in mind. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
“It had been in the back of my mind for years. We have sweetbreads on our signature set menu for the lobster vol-au-vent. The sweetbreads were sitting there, morels are in season, wild garlic, plus we had truffle trim in the freezer from when black truffles were in season,” he says, adding when ingredients are in season, they naturally go together.
His next dish will be his biggest challenge to date – a vegetarian burger. He plans to use seasonal vegetables, which means there will be at least four iterations of the burger.
“I don’t do a lot of experimenting or trials,” he says, though he has thought about it a lot. “I think you generally know it’s going to work in your head.”